In Siddartha Jatla’s Love and Shukla, auto rickshaw driver Shukla (Saharsh Kumar Shukla) learns the hard way about the chasm between expectation and reality in space-deficit Mumbai.
When his mother chooses Lakshmi (Taneea Rajawat) for him, Shukla cannot stop himself from dreaming about love and, more importantly, sex. After all, this will be Shukla’s first encounter with a woman, a feat he proudly associates with his caste. “I’m a Brahmin and we don’t look at Indian women before marriage,” he brags to his friends. The only other Indian woman he has dared to pine for is the actress Sonakshi Sinha, whose pictures line the roof of Shukla’s auto.
“Do you even know what to do on your first night?” his friends tease him. “A woman can tolerate anything but not a man that fails to satisfy her in bed.”
Unfazed, Shukla cites his knowledge from watching porn (those women are not Indian, he argues) and deems himself ready for marriage. The build-up comes to nought on his wedding night when he realises that in his one-room house in a chawl, where he lives with his parents, there is no room for private conversations with Lakshmi, let alone opportunities for sex.
Shukla’s search for privacy goes beyond the house, out into the bustling metropolis, where he find the same sense of suffocation. The movie has echoes of Basu Chatterji’s Piya Ka Ghar (1972), which also examines the impact of a cramped household on a marriage.
Love and Shukla has been screened at several film festivals, including Busan and Palm Springs, and will be the opening title at the Black Movie Film Festival in Geneva that runs between January 19 and 28.
“Much before I decided to make a film on this subject, I remember sitting at a restaurant on Marine Drive in Mumbai with the co-writer and co-producer of this film, Amanda Mooney,” Jatla recalled. “If you look at the road on any evening, the sea-front is filled with couples who are cozying up to each other. I found it strange that it barely matters to them that they are actually doing this in a public place. Amanda immediately pointed out that most couples do not really have a choice. Privacy is such a luxury in most homes.”
Jatla is a graduate of cinematography from the Film and Television Institute of India, and has shot three Marathi films and shows for television and comedy producer All India Bakchod. “It was time, I felt, to venture into direction,” he said. “I even wrote out a script, but it didn’t find a producer. That phase was deeply frustrating and depressing.”
Amanda Mooney gave Jatla the idea of self-producing his film, and she collaborated with him on the script. “Amanda and I had also visited Dharavi once on a shoot, and I remember being intrigued by the kind of space that makes up each home there,” he said. “I also remembered an episode from my own childhood. I grew up in a joint family and I remember this particular episode involving my uncle and aunt. They had just been married and my uncle wanted to spend some time alone with his wife. I was playing in the same room. My uncle slowly asked my aunt to go close the door. No, you do it, what will people think if I do it, was her response.”
Jatla’s research included speaking to auto rickshaw drivers in Mumbai and the Marine Drive couples. All of them readily spoke to him, he said. “That is what is charming about Mumbai as a city – people open up to each other quite easily, whether it is young couples or aunties and uncles.”
The titular character was partly inspired by the actor playing him. Saharsh Kumar Shukla, seen in such films as Highway (2014) and Bangistan (2015), is also Jatla’s batchmate from FTII. “Shukla himself comes from an orthodox Brahmin family,” Jatla said. “A lot of the opinions about sex and women in this film are his own. He also behaves the same way as in the film when he gets drunk.”
Jatla’s training as a cinematographer came in handy when shooting in a small house. The film is full of tight frames that enhance the frustration and suffocation of the characters. “Here are characters that are yearning to be close, but it is nearly impossible considering the situation they are in,” Jatla said. “I thought a good trick is to steal some intimacy on behalf of the characters is by using close-ups. Also, this is a film about human emotions. So, the faces are absolutely important.”